This morning, Jon Platt stood on the steps of the Supreme Court after losing his fight to take his child out of school in term-time, and with him, parents across the UK faced a very real threat of a criminal record if they chose, like he once did, to take their child on a term-time holiday.
The Supreme Court has ruled that Jon Platt was wrong for taking his child out of school for a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ to Disney World, Florida; the implication being that his child’s academic education was of far higher priority than that of family time, and the experience of a holiday abroad – or even, in this case, a once-in-lifetime opportunity.
There is no further recourse beyond the Supreme Court, so the judgement today will have ramifications for at least another generation. But, as parents, is it right that the state, in Jon’s own words, ‘was taking away the rights of parents’, and that parents are no longer the ‘final arbiter for what is right for your child’.
There’s no denying that there is a real need for some children to be supported by the state to achieve their academic potential. I know personally of a family where the children are routinely late to school, due to parental negligence, and have missed a large chunk of their education; which has in turn led to difficulties in their learning and social interactions within the school. Persistent absence (that is greater than 10% of all possible sessions) in Autumn 2015 (latest figures from the Department of Education) shows that while decreasing, stood at 10.3% of all absence rates, which sat at 4.1%. These are children who will be significantly in need of further support as they go through the testing process of schooling; who may be limited in their life choices as a result of a low attendance and therefore lesser education than their peers. This ruling also goes beyond term-time holidays, and will now take into account lateness, and the odd day off – with the onus squarely upon the parent to prove that the absence is genuine and within the school’s authorised absence policy. And woe betide you if not; as this now means that parents may be subject to a fine and even criminal proceedings should this not be the case.
Equally, surely most parents understand that exams and tests form a critical part of the curriculum and the way our children are assessed; and for GCSEs, and A Levels those exams form the basis for the whole of their lives and their career choices. Secondary school absences have a critical impact on the ability for a child to successfully achieve their full potential at GCSE level. Whether this impact is seen during primary education though is up for debate.
Crucially in this case however, absence due to holidays makes up only 0.3% of absence rates from all possible sessions, so with such low rates, is this heavy-handed, draconian judgement really fair to the vast majority of families who ensure that their children attend school regularly, on time, every day? And does it matter? If a child has otherwise excellent attendance, the harm of a fortnight’s holiday – whether a once in a lifetime experience or not – is hardly going to have much of an impact.
We hear so frequently in the press of concern that the ‘family construct’ is being lost in the UK, as family time decreases with the rise in technology and working hours. For many families, parents will be out of the home between 7am and 7pm, and third-party childcare is relied upon to plug the gaps, while parents work to provide for the home. Behaviours such as eating together, or playing games etc is lost, especially during the working week, and the family holiday is often a time to bond, to take time to eat and spend social time together, and re-establish behaviours that are otherwise diluted during the vast majority of the year. And what of those parents who don’t have the ability to choose their annual leave – in many ‘blue collar’ jobs, annual leave is dictated and likely not to fall within school holidays. Under this new ruling, those families will not be able to take a holiday together.
Of course, the most frequent frustration with this judgement is due to the extortionate increase applied by holiday companies during the school holidays, with many parents reporting at least a £500-1000 increase dependent on location and time of travel. Swathes of parents feel that this is unfair, but does it unjustly mean that many children are denied the experience of a family holiday abroad? Holidays are enriching, educational experiences in their own right; from trips to historical sites (geography and history), to being immersed in a different culture (PSHE) and foreign languages. Education isn’t limited to the classroom; every step of a family holiday can be interpreted as a learning experience for diligent parents – from working out terminals for flights (mathematics, English) or understanding of how your aeroplane flies (science; physics); learning about foreign cuisine (home economics) and even learning to swim in the hotel pool – the possibilities are endless. With the implementation of this ruling, does the government also have a responsibility to ensure that holiday companies do not increase their prices wildly during the summer holidays; whether domestically or abroad.
Conversely, education is a gift. In a world where children – girls especially – have to fight for education and doing so can threaten their lives, the freedom to have the high standard of schooling that is offered in the UK is something we should treasure. A good education is the foundation to our children having the gift of choosing their own paths in life.
As we enter a new chapter in the UK post-Brexit, do we also have a responsibility to offer our children multi-cultural experiences outside of their own town or city? As we draw up the bridge with Europe, should we ensure that our children aren’t limited in their experience of foreign or religious culture on their doorstep and rather provide experiences outside the classroom where they can experience and understand how different countries live?
Ultimately, the increase of the nanny state has huge implications for our society as a whole. The right of a parent to ‘parent’ should be paramount; and for the minority who do not meet their responsibility to do this effectively should be treated accordingly. But for the vast majority of parents who could now be, potentially, subject to criminal proceedings for ensuring that they and their children have family time, or worse – not being able to prove their child’s absence was worthy of being ‘authorised’ – this ruling could see parents being penalised for parenting, and worse, even receiving a criminal record for the sake of a family holiday.
About Kate Dyson
Founder of The Motherload®. Wife, mum to two girls, two cats and shit loads of washing in baskets that sit around the house waiting to be ironed. It never happens. Hater of exercise, denier of weight gain, lover of wine. Feminist. You can follow me on Twitter